Harman's intervention leaves new rape laws floundering

Whitehall split will not be resolved until Alan Johnson and Jack Straw return from holiday

Nigel Morris,Deputy Political Editor
Thursday 06 August 2009 00:00

Civil servants have been told to work through the summer to resolve a damaging Whitehall split over how to bring more rapists to justice.

The deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, cancelled a planned announcement of a review of how police and the courts treat rape victims because she did not think the review was sufficiently comprehensive. Her intervention – less than 48 hours after Downing Street had signalled that an initiative on rape conviction rates was to be announced yesterday – provoked accusations that she was "grandstanding" to try to win plaudits among Labour activists.

Ms Harman, also the Equalities minister, cancelled the announcement as three Government departments wrangled over how wide-ranging the review would be. She also ditched plans to travel to a rape referral centre in Manchester to deliver the news.

She wanted the review to include a detailed examination of why rape conviction rates – which are just over 6 per cent – are so low. But the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice said the review should have narrower terms of reference, focussing on improving how victims are treated.

They told Ms Harman that it would take weeks to prepare for the wide remit that she favoured and were not willing to press ahead without involving Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary, and Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, both of whom are on holiday.

A senior Whitehall source said: "She wanted to go for a complete root-and-branch review. That was not simply achievable in the time given to officials. This is a complex issue, a long-term issue. What was on the table needed far more work – it was not up to the level that Harriet Harman wanted."

Ms Harman held talks with David Hanson, the Police minister, and Vera Baird, the Solicitor General, to ease tensions over the row. They have instructed officials to produce new proposals by mid-September. The source said: "People have been given six weeks to get their minds focused."

The sensitivity of the issues involved means that the issue looks certain to go to the Cabinet next month. Mr Johnson and Mr Straw are expected to press for fresh guidance to police and courts to make it easier for rape victims to report the crime and give evidence about it. Their departments are likely to argue that improvements can be put in place within months – before the next election. Ms Harman is believed to view such an approach as tinkering around the edges of a problem that has afflicted the criminal justice system for decades.

All parties insisted that the discussions had so far been amicable. Ms Baird told the BBC that ministers had been discussing the terms of reference "for quite a few weeks" and said: "We did think we would have got them right by now. But there is still work to do."

Mr Hanson, who travelled alone to Manchester yesterday to announce £3.2m in funding to help victims of sexual violence, insisted that the Government was "at one" on the issue.

Asked why Ms Harman had cancelled, Mr Hanson said: "She is acting as Prime Minister and she has other business in Government today. She fully supports the announcement."

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